Movies, Music, Newspapers, and now the Bike Business

The music industry has been going through its own crisis for the last ten years and several years later, the movie industry joined them as they re-evaluated business models, fought piracy, and had middling results at both. Right now we're in the thick of it with regards to newspapers as they pause during a crisis to figure out how they can continue doing business going forward by either embracing or running away from the internet.

No industry is immune to the Internet breaking old business models, providing customers with tons of information, and providing a near-perfect marketplace for sales of goods and services. It should come as no surprise that the bicycle industry is going through the same crisis right now.

Molly Cameron reprints an open letter from the owner of River City Bicycles, one of the older and more popular shops in Portland, which sponsors tons of cycling events and is asking racers and supporters to shun the internet and stick with River City for all their needs (and Molly as bike business owner herself seems to agree).

I'm a cyclist, a bike racer, and someone that attends Portland events. I've shopped at River City a few times (most of the time I get the Jack Black High Fidelity elitist attitude from the staff, so I rarely go there), I shop at my local bike shop regularly, and I also buy lots of stuff online. Speaking as the perfect target of the open letter, I have to say David Guettler has it all wrong.

I see obvious parallels between Hollywood's creative industries and what the bike shop world is going through right now. I read the open letter and see someone asking customers to join him in putting his head in the sand in the hopes that if we ignore it, the Internet will magically go away. It reminds me of ABC's Charlie Gibson telling journalism students that their industry would be fine if everyone would stop reading online news for free and just buy more dead-tree newspapers.

I really wish we could talk about these things without having them be either/or propositions. I find it silly to think River City Bicycles can't do a healthy business online and see no upside to them running away from it and asking others to join them. I already see tons of shops selling either their own exclusive and/or local items (like River City's beautiful wood fenders that you can get nowhere else but for some reason they don't sell online) or their overstock they can't seem to sell locally (as eBay shows, someone, somewhere wants and needs something you may be selling). Local shops most definitely do not have to ignore the internet.

Here's how I usually operate as a cyclist and buyer of many bikes and parts: I frequently find out about new products by either searching online and doing research on my own or from online bike news sites and magazines. I see if my local shop carries it, and if they do not, I see if wider area Portland shops have it. Then I check eBay to see if someone is selling the part as overstock or used (yes, often at a discount). If I really have to have the product and I can get it nowhere else, I'll then order it online, but it's usually pretty rare, as almost anything is available from a nearby shop or eBay.

Local shops can only carry so much stock and only so many brands, but when I'm buying parts off eBay, I'm frequently (seems like more than half the time) buying directly from a local shop that had one too many bike stems ordered last summer, or a seat in a color no one in Wisconsin liked. There's nothing stopping them from selling that overstock online and at least getting a decent return (as opposed to heavily clearance pricing it locally until it is gone).

The Music industry has shown us over the last 12 years what happens when you first ignore the internet, then try to outlaw it, then sue your customers, then eventually embrace it, sell items in new formats that people want, and eventually figure out all sorts of new ways to capitalize on a medium that was previously treated with hostility.

I'd hate to see bike shops go the way of the 8-track tape, and I would like to see them take a more open approach to embracing all the capabilities of the internet, but it's gonna take some visionary bike shop owners that provide services you can't get online (like professional bike fitting), that sell products that are exclusive or local (partner with local tradesmen making local stuff people will never find online), and that use the internet to sell and even direct customers to in the event the local shop can't fill a customer's needs.